Article

Ask the Expert: Managing Self-Control Issues

How to look for clues and direction for guiding the behavior of a child who wants everything anyone else has

By Polly Greenberg
  • Grades: PreK–K, 1–2

Dear Polly, One of the children in my group is always grabbing materials away from the others. She seems to want everything anyone else has. What's going on here?

Polly:  We see this occasionally. If only each undesirable behavior had one cause that applied to every child. Unfortunately, working well with children requires familiarity with large numbers of them, as well as some good detective work. Knowledge of many children and their many behaviors, strengths, difficulties, and so on enables us to think more wisely about a problem we want to solve with a particular child.

Observing the child in a variety of situations at different times of day (when she's tired, hungry, and so on) and getting to know her parents and home life, will offer clues and direction for guiding her behavior.

Why might this child be doing this? Does she have an older sibling who gets what he wants and causes this child to feel she never gets enough? Or a younger sibling who constantly gets into her belongings and disturbs her activities? Or does she have a large family, and so feels crowded and has a sense that things are scarce?

Sometimes children act out in a literal way what they're feeling. If this little girl feels that her parents are distracted or unavailable for one reason or another, she may symbolically be "grabbing" their time, attention, and love when she grabs actual things from classmates.

Some children, who may be mature in other ways, have impulse control issues. If it occurs to them to do something, they do it. If they want it, they grab it. Good judgment seldom stops the impulse. To some extent this is biological immaturity — that part of the brain isn't well developed. We expect toddlers and two-year-olds to lack self-control. We expect five- and six-year-olds to do better. But we also expect adults to teach children, especially when they are two, three, and four years old, how to explain what they need or want, wait for a turn, and so on. We teach, patiently, again and again and again, until the child gets it and grows mature enough to be able to do it. Children with impulse control problems often know what's expected long before they can make themselves do it.

Because young children learn more effectively through repeated successes than repeated failures, teachers can help by sticking close to this child and intervening just before an incident. This helps her think through what she should do.

Often, children exhibiting these behaviors can be anxious and stressed. Their feelings of being threatened — of someone having something they lack — are overwhelming. It helps to assist them in putting their feelings of worry or anger into words. Our friendly support is calming, and a calm child is less likely to act out aggressively.

  • Subjects:
    Confronting and Resolving Fears, Assessment, Childhood Behaviors, Early Social Skills, Manners and Conduct, Sharing, Teacher Tips and Strategies
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